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Card Sorting Basics – The Guide to Understanding Card Sorting in UX

What is Card Sorting in UX?

Card sorting is a method used during user experience strategies within a website design project to aid you in designing and evaluating the information architecture of your site. In a card sorting session, participants organize topics into categories, and then you use those groupings to create an information architecture that suits the needs of your site’s users.

When you conduct a card sort, you are literally sorting notecards into categories that make sense to your site visitors. Knowing your audience is key in card sorting, because by understanding how they think, you can use this exercise to help you determine how to build the structure for your website, decide what to put on the homepage, and label categories and navigation.

Below we’ve outlined some must-know information about card sorting so you can see how it could benefit your site, the best way to go about conducting a card sort, and how to analyze its effectiveness.

Conducting a Card Sort

Performing a card sorting exercise is a great way for you and your team to visualize how your site can be best organized to provide a fantastic user experience. You use actual cards, pieces of paper, or online card-sorting software. Once your participants are gathered, you can begin the organization exercise. A card sort is made up of a few simple steps that help you see how your users experience your site.

Choose a Set of Topics

These topics represent the information on the main page of your site. Write each of these topics on individual cards. When thinking of topics, try to avoid using the same words. Your exercise participants will naturally want to group these together, which could defeat the purpose of the card sorting.

Organize the Topics into Groups

After all of the cards have a topic on them, shuffle them. Then present the cards to your participants. Have the users place the cards into categories. If your participants can’t fit a card in with the others, have them leave it to the side.

Have Your Users Name the Groups

Once all of the cards are organized into groups, have your user name the groups. After this is done, you have the opportunity to ask the users why they chose the group names and why each card belongs in its assigned category. This gives you some insight into your users’ mindsets and thought processes when entering your site.

Repeat and Analyze the Data

Once you’ve finish one card sort, repeat the exercise as many times as you’d like. We recommend having between 15 and 20 participants, so you have a wide set of data. Then analyze the data, looking for trends, common group names, and topics that were often grouped together. This data will help you better structure and organize your site for the best possible user experience.

Different Types of Card Sorting

Though card sorting has one goal—site design insight—the means by which you get there can vary greatly. There are a few different types of card sorting. Check out the list below to see which one could best benefit you.

Open Card Sorting

In open sorting, participants are given their own stack of cards. They are then asked to organize the cards into any groups of their choosing, creating their own group labels. If you are trying to organize products on your site, or if you are working with new or even existing information architecture, this method is great for you.

Closed Card Sorting

You as the researcher have a little more control in closed sorting. You create the group labels, then ask participants to sort their cards into these preexisting groups. If you want to add content to your established site or get more insight after an open card sort, the closed card sorting method is a good option.

Remote Card Sorting

Remote card sorting is totally computer based. Both open and closed card sorting can be done remotely. This is a great option if you want participants to have the opportunity to participate at their convenience (and yours) or if you want to conduct a large-scale sort.

Face-to-Face Card Sorting

As the name suggests, a face-to-face sort happens in person and before an impartial observer. Your participants are encouraged to think out loud while they sort, clarifying their reasoning and thought processes. The observer can ask for clarification to understand why participants made certain decisions, which then gives you a better understanding of how to set up and organize your site.

Benefits of Card Sorting

As far as site development and organization is concerned, card sorting is a fantastic exercise. There are many benefits to conducting a card sort for your site:

  • Easy and Inexpensive – To hold a card sort, you only need participants and notecards. The instructions are simple, and anyone can be a participant.
  • Fast – You can conduct multiple sorts in just a short amount of time. You can walk away from a card sort with a lot of valuable data that was collected very quickly.
  • Proven to Work – Card sorting has been around for over a decade. It’s time tested and has been proven to yield helpful data.
  • Brings in Different Perspectives – Card sorting opens up your design method to the perspective and opinion of others. This gives you the opportunity to think about design in a way that serves a set of people who have varying opinions and experiences with your site or other sites.

Demerits of Card Sorting

As you can see above, there are a lot of “pros” when you consider card sorting. However, it doesn’t answer every question or provide the solutions you might be hoping for. In the spirit of transparency, here are some of the ways card sorting might fall short. Review these shortcomings and then decide if card sorting could still help you accomplish your purposes.

  • Labels Aren’t Presented in Context – When conducting a card sort, your participants have access to a lot of information, but it’s not contextualized. This prevents your categories from being represented with 100 percent accuracy.
  • Results May Vary – Depending on who you have asked to participate in your card sort, the results of the exercise might vary. It is up to you to choose participants that you feel best represent your users.
  • Result Analysis Is Time Consuming – Wait, wasn’t one of the benefits of card sorting that it is fast? Setup is quick, but analysis of the data can be complicated and time-consuming, especially if the data is varied or inconsistent.
  • You Might Only Get Surface-Level Analysis – If your card sorting participants don’t feel like they have the right category for your topic, they might place it somewhere for the sake of it being in a category, not necessarily because it fits well there.

Analysis

After the exercise is complete, analysis begins. Use the collected data to identify common trends and preferences or even ways that users might perceive or understand groupings on your site.

You can organize the data either with analysis software or by entering manually on a spreadsheet. Your data can be organized according to user comments, which cards commonly appeared together, and how often cards appeared in certain categories.

Conclusion

Card sorting is a highly effective way to understand both what your users perceive your site to be and how they might naturally navigate through it. It will help you organize your content according to your customers’ needs and wants, which provides them with the optimal user experience.